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Cranial Calisthenics

By: Ivan Olegario, MD, MDevComCranial Calisthenics

As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you lose it. This is true for the muscles of the body, including our most important “muscle”, our brain. As we age, we lose a little bit of our precious gray matter, and for a time, experts thought there was nothing we could do about it. As it turns out, keeping your mind active is the key to keeping your mind. Even patients with grave degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease reap some benefit from mental calisthenics. Here are some great examples you can try right now:

  1.  Do a switch. Our brains have been wired to prefer a dominant hand, foot, or eye. For example, right-handed people will do most tasks with their right hand. One way to help keep your brain flexible and agile, try using the opposite hand instead. Go ahead, try brushing your teeth using your non-dominant hand. This will force your brain to pay more attention and develop new skills needed to perform these now-awkward movements.
  2. Guess the coin. Most of the time, we evaluate things with our eyes. By changing your main source of information, your brain learns to use your other senses more intensively. This will then jolt your brain to form new brain connections. One way to do this is through coins. Fill up a bowl with many coins of different denominations. Using only your sense of touch, guess the denomination of the coins you pick up.
  3. Make-believe. Train your brain to be more creative and open-minded. Look for an item, any item. Then think of 10 non-conventional ways to use that item. For example, a pen could also be a magic wand, a baton, a rocket ship, etc.
  4. Learn foreign phrases. Learning a foreign language could be one of the most challenging tasks for the brain. This single exercise activates language centers, learning centers, memory centers, and imagination centers of the brain. You don’t know where to start? Try downloading a mobile phone app for learning a second language. Remember: do not do this while driving. The intense focus required may distract you and lead to an accident.
  5. Do the shake. Mental and emotional stress causes a release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are the ones that not only raises your blood pressure, but also prevents you from making sound judgements (they, instead, activate survival instincts, which may not be appropriate in today’s sophisticated environment). Get back your level-headedness by shaking your body literally. Shake your head, limbs and torso, as if you are dancing the Twist on steroids. This will release all the tension in your body, and bring you back to your normal, logical self.
  6. Stretch. Stretching is not only good for your joints, but also for your brain. Not only does it stimulate blood flow, but it also wipes away the lethargy in your brain. 
  7. Ride the train of thought. Think of a word, then imagine a picture of the word in your head. Next, find another word that begins with the last letter of the previous word. Again, imagine a picture of the second word. Continue doing this as long as you like. This exercise will activate the centers of your brain involved in language, logical thinking, and imagination.
  8. Map it out. When visiting a place, pay attention to the roads and landmarks. Once you get home, draw a map of the area you visited only from memory (no cheating). This exercise sharpens your attention span, improves your memory, and activates spatial reasoning.

Going deeper

Do you want to bring your brain, and your life to the next level?

  1. Evaluate your core beliefs. As yourself sincerely, “What do I believe? What do I stand for?”. This focused exercise will cement your foundational beliefs, which would translate into firm values. For many, in fact, they become self-fulfilling prophesies. So if you find a belief that is negative or that is pulling you back, make extra effort to thwart this belief and change it into a positive one, before it becomes reality.
  2. Practice discomfort tolerance. Nobody wants discomfort, and tolerating it requires extreme mental strength. Some harmless ways of tolerating discomfort include: walking up three flights of stairs; weathering the heat or cold; or keeping yourself from doing a bad habit, such as nail-biting or leg-shaking.
  3. Reflect on your daily progress. Daily reflection is a kind of reinforcing meditation that can also teach you lessons for the future. At the end of the day, around 2 hours before sleeping, set aside 10 minutes to think about the events of the day and your thoughts, emotions and actions. Identify lessons from these that you can apply in the coming days.

By exercising your neurons, you keep them ready to take on the challenges of the future.

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